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Benning's Canucks continue to follow the path of Chiarelli’s Oilers

The 2021-22 Canucks are looking very similar to the 2018-19 Oilers; is Benning headed to the same fate as the fired Chiarelli?
Peter-Chiarelli Codie McLachlan CP
Peter Chiarelli was universally criticized for his work as GM of the Edmonton Oilers.

Like vultures smelling a carcass, other NHL teams are starting to circle around the Vancouver Canucks.

Just 19 games into the Canucks’ season, they’re already starting to get trade calls, with the Minnesota Wild reportedly inquiring about the Canucks’ leading scorer, J.T. Miller. That doesn’t mean the Canucks are interested in trading Miller, though there was certainly a stir when the forward was absent from practice — merely a maintenance day, according to head coach Travis Green.

General manager Jim Benning gave his players a vote of confidence in his press conference last week.

“I still believe in this group of players and we’re going to keep working hard to find solutions to our problems,” said Benning. “We still want to be a playoff team.”

While the Canucks may not trade Miller — at least not right now — it does raise a question: with confidence in the Canucks’ front office at an all-time low among fans, does Benning have the trust to make any moves at all?

The Oilers/Canucks parallel

There’s a parallel to be drawn between this season and the final season of Peter Chiarelli with the Edmonton Oilers. I’ve drawn this parallel before, in the midst of the Canucks’ struggles last season. Benning was Chiarelli’s right-hand man with the Boston Bruins and their tenures in Vancouver and Edmonton bear a strong similarity to each other. The Canucks are just a few years behind the Oilers.

In the 2017 playoffs, the Oilers made the playoffs after missing for multiple years. They went on a strong run, coming one game away from the Western Conference Final on the back of some fantastic goaltending by Cam Talbot.

In the 2020 playoffs, the Canucks made the playoffs after missing for multiple years. They went on a strong run, coming one game away from the Western Conference Final on the back of some fantastic goaltending by Thatcher Demko.

Both thought they were a team on the rise, only to completely collapse the following season, not even coming close to the playoffs. It was even more disappointing for the Oilers, who were expected to be Stanley Cup contenders, but it was also a crushing year for the Canucks.

Chiarelli didn’t lose his job after the Oilers’ disappointing 2017-18 season. Neither did Benning after the 2019-20 season, even though a cadre of fans called for it to happen.

For Chiarelli, it took one more season or part of one. Is Benning heading down the same path with the Canucks this season?

A coaching change did little for the Oilers

The 2018-19 Oilers and 2021-22 Canucks certainly have some parallels, beyond just the presence of Alex Chiasson in the lineup and on the first power play unit: there’s the questionable defence corps, terrible penalty killing, and a surprising lack of offence despite their talent at forward.

The 2018-19 Oilers got off to a better start than this season’s Canucks, though that’s not saying much. After 20 games, the Oilers were below .500 with a 9-10-1 record and it meant the end of the line for head coach Todd McLellan. He was replaced by Ken Hitchcock, a coach renowned for instilling strong systems and structure.

There are surely fans who would welcome a similar move from the Canucks, with #FireGreen typically trending right behind #FireBenning on Twitter when the Canucks get blown out. 

At first, the coaching change seemed to help the Oilers, as they won 7 of their first 10 games after the change. After that, they struggled. In the end, they went 26-28-8 under Hitchcock — about the same as they were under McLellan — and finished 7th in the Pacific Division and 14th in the Western Conference.

The Canucks are currently 7th in the Pacific Division and 14th in the Western Conference. 

The final moves of Chiarelli's tenure as GM of the Oilers

With a 23-24-3 record, the Oilers finally fired Chiarelli on January 23, three months into the season and a month before the trade deadline. Evidently, they didn’t trust Chiarelli to run another trade deadline and why would they? 

Canning Chiarelli before the trade deadline was a good call, but before he was let go, Chiarelli was allowed to make some final moves. 

The move that seems most pertinent for Canucks fans at the moment was the panic trade of Ryan Strome for Ryan Spooner a month into the season. Strome, the return for Jordan Eberle — another ill-considered trade on the part of Chiarelli — had just 2 points in 18 games for the Oilers but found new life as a top-six forward with the New York Rangers and has 152 points in 203 games with the Rangers since the trade.

Spooner, meanwhile, had just 3 points in 25 games with the Oilers, was placed on waivers, and then traded to Chiarelli’s old buddy Benning with the Canucks for Sam Gagner.

Strome and Miller are obviously different players in different situations. Still, it's an uncomfortable parallel that Chiarelli traded away a top-six forward while his team was struggling.

Chiarelli and Benning share a common inability to build a solid defence corps despite their best efforts. Chiarelli spent major assets acquiring Adam Larsson and Griffin Reinhart in an attempt to build a strong defence and those ended up being his two most ridiculed moves, costing the Oilers Taylor Hall and the first-round pick that became Mathew Barzal.

In 2018-19, the defence was particularly weak on the right side, which again sounds very familiar. 

Chiarelli made two trades in an attempt to desperately shore up the defence, sending Drake Caggiula and Jason Garrison to the Chicago Blackhawks for Brandon Manning and Robin Norell, then trading Chris Wideman and a third-round pick for Alex Petrovic, a 6’4” physical defensive defenceman from the Florida Panthers — I swear this sounds uncomfortably familiar.  

Manning played 12 games for the Oilers that season then wound up in the AHL. Petrovic didn’t even last that long, playing just 9 games for the Oilers. 

The Strome trade was a costly one for the Oilers, but these latter two trades weren’t quite as bad. They didn’t cost the Oilers much in terms of futures and they didn’t move out any players that were likely to get a larger return, so it could have been worse from an Oilers perspective. Really, all they did was cement that Chiarelli didn’t know how to evaluate defencemen.

Then there was the signing of goaltender Mikko Koskinen to a three-year deal worth $4.5 million per year after he had played just 27 games in the NHL. The deal was signed two days before Chiarelli was fired.

That deal looked dreadful last season when Koskinen stumbled out of the gate, was replaced in net by the 38-year-old Mike Smith, and finished the year with an .899 save percentage. Koskinen has been better to start this season but it’s still stunning that Chiarelli was allowed to make a signing that significant on the eve of his own firing.

How long will it take for reality to set in for the Canucks?

Both the Oilers and Canucks let a single playoff run convince them that they were on the right track and closer to contending than they really were. It took two terrible seasons for the Oilers to wake up and make a change but it took months into that second season for reality to truly set in.

Until that happened, Chiarelli made a coaching change that fixed nothing, traded away a top-six forward for a minimal return, and made a significant re-signing that impacted the Oilers’ salary cap for the next three years.

What moves will Benning make in the coming months?